Collaborating Effectively: forming impact-driven partnerships

flock of migrating canada geese birdsThis is the third part in a series of blogs on collaboration. Read Part I “Why Collaboration Matters” and Part II “Collaboration is the Jet Fuel for Social Innovation” by Tim Draimin.

After attending the Natural Step’s Accelerate conference, my impression is that collaboration is one messy business: it can be awkward, sticky and frustrating. This is particularly true when we try to collaborate across sectors. As we invite leaders from different organizations representing divergent interests, we’re thrown into a foreign jungle. We don’t know the rules, we likely don’t understand the group’s overall goal, and we probably don’t speak the same language. At the beginning, the group dialogue is often dominated by self-interest; a cacophony of Me! Me! Me!

To quote Avrim Lazar, “collaboration within tribes is easy but between tribes is destruction and dominance. Tribes can often trump common sense.” Too often tribes (or organizations) struggle to bridge their separate individual interests. If tribes could learn to form breakthrough relationships and identify the unique strengths and resources available to each of them, they could collectively act to make change to the larger systems at play.

Collaboration trials and tribulations

Throughout the conference, stories of strained partnerships and shortfalls in impact were shared. Bart Houlahan, former President of AND 1 sportswear, spoke of his increasing struggle to retain his business’ original social mission while gaining new investors. Environmental pioneer, Bruce Lourie, described the regrettable but reasonable departure of Greenpeace from the Boreal Forest Initiative that convenes over 20 companies in industry for environmentally progressive policy making.


Yet through these hardships emerged determined leaders, their visions burning with increased resolve. In the case of Houlahan, he co-founded B Lab following his stint in finance. B Lab initiated the B Corp Certification and the GIIRS Rating, which boosts legitimacy for social purpose businesses and impact investment firms. For the Boreal Forest Initiative, Lourie holds faith in the remaining members of the leadership council, as well as outside activist groups that continue to apply pressure.

Fruitful Collaborations

Although I wasn’t surprised to discover that high-level collaborations face significant roadblocks, the large number of successful collaborations already in practice shocked me, particularly those with “unusual suspects”. The conference put a spotlight on the experts in cross-sector navigation and communication, who offered invaluable advice to participants, which I have attempted to capture below: 

Be Issue Centered

When David Hughes joined Habitat for Humanity Canada, he was up against mounting debt and dwindling fundraising revenues. How did he turn it around? He put the issue at the centre in order to bring all the right people to the table. Hughes changed the positioning of the problem: the issue wasn’t about Habitat for Humanity, it was about homelessness, or the impossible choice a low-income family faces between feeding their children and paying rent. Not only was this a successful marketing tactic in Habitat fundraising campaigns, but it also allowed Hughes to invite “unlikely bedfellows” to partner with Habitat. In his eight years as President, Hughes doubled Habitat’s annual revenues, and expanded its operations from 55 to over 72 locations across Canada. David has continued this strategy at Pathways to Education through partnering with local municipalities, schools and non-profits. For David, having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal is essential to collaboration. His next BHAG is to create a “Graduation Nation,” where every child can graduate high school across Canada.

Create a Shared Purpose

Karl-Henrik Robèrt, the founder of the Natural Step, highlighted the importance of forming a mutual goal with a shared understanding between partners. Robèrt cited his own shared purpose experience from the early days of the Natural Step Sweden, where he garnered support from the Swedish King, government, and businesses in order to deliver the Natural Step’s principles to every household and school in Sweden.

In one of the breakout sessions, Nadine Gudz, Director of Sustainability at Interface, shared her top lessons to achieving a common purpose:

1)    Tackle the elephant in the room
2)    Speak more questions than answers, and do it with humility
3)    Foster persistent, continuous dialogue with your partners, especially if they’re your enemies

Interface Net Effect Program in the Philippines

Interface Net Effect Program in the Philippines

Through these techniques, Nadine has spearheaded a fishing net recycling program that upcycles discarded nets into carpet. Interface has partnered with the Zoological Society of London and village households in the Philippines to collect 20 tons of netting for the pilot project alone.

Asking Why & Other Dabbles of Wisdom

The conference showered participants with knowledge and insight. Charmian Love of Volans promoted five strategies for collaboration:

1)    Map and leverage relationships
2)    Seek out intrapreneurs, who are change agents operating within organizations
3)    Build coalitions of the willing
4)    Follow and listen to thought leaders
5)    Ask “why?” five times


Tim Brodhead speaking at Accelerate

As Tim Brodhead wisely commented during the first morning: none of this is easy. Good collaboration starts with sober expectations and with the knowledge that there will be hard times ahead. Collaboration is not for the faint at heart; rather, it is for the trailblazers who see the insurmountable issues of society being broken down only through an army of many, not a group of few.

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Devon Krainer About Devon Krainer

Devon was the Project Coordinator for SIX Summer School Vancouver 2014 and a researcher with SiG.

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